Dickens's Apology for Fagin

Edgar Johnson

From Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph
Part Nine, Chapter Four

. . . There had come to him a communication that curiously influenced the design of his story. Mrs. Eliza Davis, the wife of the gentleman who had bought Tavistock House, wrote him a letter telling him that Jews regarded his portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist as "a great wrong" to their people. Only once before had this reproach come to his eyes, in 1854 when the Jewish Chronicle had asked "why Jews alone should be excluded from the sympathizing heart" of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed. At that time, responding to an invitation to an anniversary dinner of the Westminster Jewish Free School, he had replied: "I know of no reason the Jews can have for regarding me as 'inimical' to them. On the contrary, I believe I do my part towards the assertion of their civil and religious liberty, and in my Child's History of England I have expressed a strong abhorrence of their persecution in old time." Now he felt impelled to defend himself in more detail.

If Jews thought him unjust to them, he replied, they were "a far less sensible, a far less just, and a far less good-tempered people than I have always supposed them to be." Fagin, he pointed out, was the only Jew in the story (he had forgotten the insignificant character of Barney) and "all the rest of the wicked dramatis personae are Christians." Fagin had been described as a Jew, he explained, "because it unfortunately was true of the time to which that story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew." (Which was not to say, of course, that all, or even many, Jews were receivers of stolen goods.) And finally, Dickens continued, in calling Fagin a Jew no imputation had been suggested against the Jewish religion; the name had been intended in the same way in which one might call a Frenchman or Spaniard or Chinese by those names. "I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one," Dickens concluded his letter. "I always speak well of them, whether in public or private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfect good faith in such transactions as I have ever had with them . . ."

Nevertheless, although Dickens felt it absurd to regard Fagin as typifying his feelings about Jews, he was troubled at being so seriously misinterpreted. In Our Mutual Friend he therefore included a group of Jewish characters, of whom the most important is Mr. Riah, a gentle and upright old Jew caught in the toils of a Christian money-lender. Lizzie Hexam, one of the two heroines, takes refuge in affliction among a community of Jews, who treat her with the most generous tenderness. To a clergyman worried about her remaining with them, she defends her Jewish employers: "The gentleman certainly is a Jew," she says, "and the lady, his wife, is a Jewess, and I was brought to their notice by a Jew. But I think there cannot be kinder people in the world."

Near the end of the book there is a passage showing that Dickens had reflected upon Mrs. Davis's reproach and understood how it came to be made, even though it imputed to him an injustice he had never intended. "For it is not in Christian countries with the Jews as with other peoples," Mr. Riah reflects. "Men say, 'This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.' Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough -- among what people are the bad not easily found? -- but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say 'All Jews are alike.'"

Mrs. Davis saw the meaning of this group of Jewish characters. During the course of the novel's serial publication she wrote Dickens in terms that can be inferred from his reply: "I have received your letter with great pleasure, and hope to be (as I have always been in my heart) the best of friends with the Jewish people." Some years later she gave him a copy of Benisch's Hebrew and English Bible, inscribed: "Presented to Charles Dickens, in grateful and admiring recognition of his having exercised the noblest quality men can possess -- that of atoning for an injury as soon as conscious of having inflicted it." These words, Dickens told her, were more gratifying than he could possibly express, "for they assure me that there is nothing but good will left between you and me and a people for whom I have a real regard, and to whom I would not wilfully have given an offense or done an injustice for any worldly consideration."

Copyright 1952 by Edgar Johnson. Published by Simon and Schuster, Inc.
This material may not be reproduced without permission from the estate of Edgar Johnson.